Normally we do not use editorials for the purpose of reviewing and promoting a book. In this case we gladly make an exception, not only because of who authored the book, Prof. David J. Engelsma, who was granted emeritus status at this year’s synod following 45 years in the active ministry, the last 20 years of which were devoted to our seminary in the Dogmatics department, but especially because of the book’s subject matter, namely, God as God triune, and that in connection with the truth of the covenant. What is more basic to the unique identity of the Christian faith than God as the Triune One, and what to Reformed theology than its covenantal emphasis?
As well, this ‘little book,’ dealing as it does with the nature of God triune as the covenantal God, takes us, by necessary inference, to the heart of the burning theological issue of our day, namely, what is the nature of God’s covenant with man, and in particular with His own people—conditional or unconditional? (cf. chap. 5). This is the theological issue of the day. If the professor’s reading of Jehovah God’s self-revelation through the Son incarnate and the Scriptures is correct, his conclusion, namely, that it is a covenant of the unconditional variety, is difficult to refute.
The undersigned offered a review of Prof. Engelsma’s book in the Reformed Journal(2007, Spring issue). But, due to what we have stated above, we are convinced this book deserves to be more widely promoted, especially among our own people (as well as others who read theSB).
It is the author’s expressed desire to inject a lively interest back into the church’s confession of the doctrine of God’s Trinitarian life, which is to say, confessing it as a doctrine, a revelation of God through His incarnate Son, which has clear practical significance for the whole of the Christian’s life in its various relationships. This he is convinced can be done. The Reformed tradition has at its disposal all the theological material necessary for the task (pp. ix, 6, 11), but it can be done only if Reformed theologians can throw off what the Professor calls a “fear of the three,” and then are willing to reconsider the truth of God triune with the emphasis being that of friendship, fellowship, and bonds of love—or, if you will, that of Jehovah being the family God in and of Himself (pp. 62 ff.). The author does not claim originality in this notion and insight. It has been set forth by such theologians as Augustine (cf. p. 5), as well as by Bavinck, Kuyper, and Hoeksema. However, the problem, according to the author, is that, other than Hoeksema, and Bavinck to a degree (p. 11), theologians have been reluctant to seize upon the significance of this aspect of God’s triune life and develop its implications accordingly.
Having the courage of his convictions, Engelsma lets the reader know in the opening words of his preface where his criticism lies.
The development of the doctrine of the Trinity in the church in the West has not done justice to the threeness of God. There has been fear of a strong, bold confession of threeness as though this would imply, or lead to, tritheism…. This hesitation has kept the church from doing justice to the significance of the Trinity for the Christian life” (Preface, p. ix).
Note the careful wording. The Professor is not finding fault with the ancient and venerable creeds of the church of the West, as though the fathers failed to do their work with the care and biblical precision required. He is in full accord with the great Christological creeds, in fact in fuller accord than Calvin himself was (cf. below), giving some substance to the author’s criticism of the much revered “master of theology” and his Trinitarian view.
Nor is it Engelsma’s contention that the great theologians of the post-Nicene church have failed to defend God’s threeness. He acknowledges they have, and well. But a defense is not the same asdevelopment (pp. 24, 25).
Rather, it is Engelsma’s contention that in developing God’s self-revelation as being three divine persons, the fear of the charge of tritheism over the centuries has so dominated the church’s leading thinkers that, when it came to following the road along which the truth of God as the great Three in One should have led them, one by one they halted. As a result, the threeness of God became the road less traveled by, or, to use Engelsma’s wording, that one aspect of the doctrine of God triune to which Christ’s church has failed to do full justice (cf. preface). Failing to do justice to something in theology is not the same as ignoring it all together, nor is it the same as being in error about what one says, but it is bound to have serious consequences as time goes on, and, as should be readily apparent, this is the more true the more central the doctrine in question is. And what doctrine is more central to the life and confession of the Christian faith in the New Testament era than that of God as God triune?
Of special interest is Engelsma’s critique of Calvin and his Trinitarian views. Recognizing full well Calvin’s valuable contributions to the church’s understanding of God as God triune, Engelsma is yet bold enough to lay at Calvin’s door primarily the hesitancy of the church of the West to stress the threeness of God within His being. Engelsma asserts that Calvin, for all his orthodoxy on the doctrine of the Trinity, was yet, due to his zeal to safeguard God’s oneness and the unity between the Divine Persons, hampered by a “fear of the three!” (pp. 32, 33).
Truth be told, Calvin in his understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity is certainly not beyond criticism. The reality is that Calvin, for all his orthodoxy, was not happy with, nor in the final analysis in full agreement with the language of the Nicene Creed. He was at odds with the teaching of the Nicene Creed on the eternal generation of the Son. The Nicene Creed teaches that the Father’s begetting of the Son pertains to the very being or essence of the Son Himself. That this is the creed’s view is clear from the phrase translated “God (out) of God.” This Calvin declared to be a “hard saying.” All that Calvin would subscribe to was a generation of the Son’s person. As to the Son’s essence or deity, He, like the Father, is un-derived. This became known as the aseity (the self-existence) of the Son. Calvin’s teaching on this matter created no small stir in his own day. John Murray describes it in terms of “the furor which Calvin’s insistence upon the self-existence of the Son as to his deity aroused at the time of the Reformation” (Westminster TJ 25, May 1963: 141).
On this issue there has been no consensus among Reformed theologians to the present day. There remains room for ongoing discussion.
Where Engelsma stands on this issue is no mystery, namely, in full accord with Nicea. “. . . the begetting of the Son is the Father’s bringing forth of the Son, not only with regard to the Son’s person but also with regard to the Son’s being” (p. 59). This being his conviction, Engelsma takes Calvin to task. Though Calvin’s intentions were good, namely, to safeguard God triune’s oneness, it is Engelsma’s contention that
So did [Calvin] emphasize that the Son is equal with the Father that he did not do justice to the distinction between them. The aseity of the Son tends to blur the difference between Son and Father, as serious an error as subordinating the Son to the Father. The generation of the Son by the Father then becomes a rather meager business, involving the person only and leaving the essence unmoved and unaffected.
The result is that one comes away from Calvin’s doctrine of the Trinity with the impression that the life of God is the existence of the one essence. There is little in Calvin of the life of the Trinity’s being happy fellowship of loving Father and beloved Son in the Holy Spirit…. One looks in vain at Calvin’s comments on the passages in John’s gospel that reveal the eternal communion of the Father and the Son for some explicit recognition of this intratrinitarian fellowship, much less for pointed development of this fellowship (pp. 31, 32).
As a result, in Engelsma’s assessment, the Reformed confessions, never straying far from the large shadow cast by Calvin, share the same weakness. Not, you understand, mistaken in their utterances, nor in error, but weak. Though they “emphatically affirm and clearly identify the three distinct persons,” yet in the Reformed confessions
…there is no recognition of the meaning of the Trinity for the life of God himself among the persons, nor is there any explicit instruction concerning the essential significance of the Trinity for the nature of the church’s life with God or for the nature of the life of believers with each other. The same holds for the Westminster Standards (p. 39).
That Engelsma’s above-stated, respectful criticisms deserve serious consideration is underscored by two considerations. First, the evidence of a spreading lack of interest throughout Christendom in the doctrine of the Trinity. As Engelsma points out:
…what Joseph A. Bracken has written about the Roman Catholic Church applies, all too often, to the Reformed churches as well: “Since there was no apparent pastoral value to be gained from an explanation of the doctrine, why should one bore people with something that in the end they wouldn’t properly understand anyway? The net result, however, has been an informal conspiracy of silence among priests in pastoral work about the Trinity and the place of the dogma in the Christian life and worship” (pp. 41, 42).
Who can dispute that what has happened to Rome’s priests is happening to Protestant preachers as well?
Second, it is an undeniable fact that the whole drift of Christianity in its apostasy over the last two centuries has been towards the black hole of Unitarianism and its deadening, icy grip (p. 41). This has been especially true of apostate Calvinists in the last couple of centuries. Who can deny it? Might it not be, as Engelsma contends, that this is an inevitable fruit of the church’s failure to do justice to the plurality of God in His three distinct persons? The doctrine is soundly formulated as dogma for the church, but where is its practical significance, and how does this glorious truth serve as the Divine pattern for all of life?
Engelsma has written his little book to suggest a way forward in this doctrine so central to the Christian faith.
Most intriguing is Engelsma’s treatment of the Holy Spirit and His place in the intra-Trinitarian love life (pp. 70-81). The Spirit’s place in the Trinitarian being of God is what is most mystifying and has been least treated in all theological treatises on the Trinity. Here Engelsma, with a certain boldness, offers his contribution to the discussion of the unique place and activity of the Holy Spirit in His relationship of double procession from the Father and His Son, a perspective that, if not altogether unique and unknown, is certainly ‘fresh.’ It can be summed up in two brief quotes.
The procession of the Spirit is a single procession from the Father to the Son and from the Son to the Father. Thus, it is the eternal binding of the Father and the Son: Since it is the personal essence of the Spirit that proceeds, the very essence of the Spirit is the bond between the first and second persons (p. 76).
….Scripture reveals the Spirit, not as a third friend, but as the mutual love, the fellowship, who binds the Father and the Son (p. 80).
This, Engelsma is convinced, does justice to the biblical revelation and what was suggested by Augustine long ago (p. 74).
But, from this reviewer’s perspective, requiring further discussion and reflection.
Engelsma’s interest in publishing his Master’s Thesis in this revised book form (in order to make it available to a wider audience in the Reformed church world) is preeminently practical. This is apparent from Engelsma’s concluding chapter, in which he addresses the doctrine of God’s covenant with His special creature, man, as that gracious covenant is meant to be a reflection of God’s own intra-covenantal life as God triune.
We ask again, does there loom in the Reformed ecclesiastical scene at present an issue of larger proportions than that of the nature of God’s covenantal dealing with man? The Federal Vision controversy raging today presses the issue upon every serious Calvinistic theologian—and every serious-minded Reformed believer, for that matter.
But what kind of covenant? A covenant of the conditional (contractual) variety, or a covenant that is unconditional in both its establishment and its maintenance? That is the question. Read for yourself the author’s conviction.
We would urge our readers to purchase the book (and read it!). If you already have, commend it to others. For all its exalted and rarified subject matter, namely, the truth concerning the Trinitarian God of covenantal life, the book is written in a ‘down to earth’ and most readable style. The professor has the ability to deal with profound and complex theological issues and then to explain them in a straight forward and understandable manner. Anyone acquainted with basic theological terminology should not need a Philip the Evangelist to climb into his chariot to make plain what is being proposed and argued
The RFPA is to be commended for the quality of this little book published. It is a book as pleasing to the eye and hand as its contents are to the believing heart and inquiring mind.